Part 3b.

Starsky stayed on the couch, eyes glued to his clasped hands. He had been too tired in the first place; now he wished he had left the beer alone. He couldn't distinguish what was fatigue, what was alcohol inside him, and how much of it was honest emotion. About the only thing he was sure of was that this was the final turning point.

If he walked out now, as Hutch so obviously wanted him to, that would be it. They couldn't be best friends anymore, but at least they would no longer be at odds. Just two civilized beings, exchanging polite talk when their paths crossed, interested in, even concerned with each other, but from a distance.

And what was wrong with that? It was certainly better than tearing one another apart when their opposing personalities clashed, or because they cared too damned much. Maybe it was true that too much of even a good thing wasn't necessarily good. They might work together on some cases if Hutch stayed on the force and in the department. One day, he'd invite Hutch to his wedding, attend his in turn, then perhaps the special days for the children would come, bar mitzvahs, christenings, birthdays. Sure, they'd have lots of reasons to stay in touch. And both would know, if a real need arose, the other would do his best to be there. The complications would be gone, and they might manage to salvage some of the comforts. There was a lot to be said for simplicity.

So, why was it that the only thing he had the urge to say was Kaddish?

He admitted it wouldn't work that way. Neither could settle for a pate shadow of what had been until time and distance killed it all together. One couldn't tone down a blaze. You either let it burn or put it out.

Hutch wanted him gone, so...

No good-byes would be said, but he wanted at least a look. He squinted to see through the glass partition. The lights weren't turned on in the patio. The glass was too busy reflecting the room back at him to show much of anything except the silhouettes of the overabundant ferns populating the darkness. Then he noticed the edge of a shimmering reflection. Hutch's hair, as usual, insisting on catching whatever light there happened to be. It had always gladdened and scared Starsky. In dark alleys, mazes of buildings, wherever, he could always count on a flash of pale gold to alert him to his partner's whereabouts, dismayed at the same time that if he could see it, so could someone with ill-will. Hutch seemed to have found a cranny to squeeze into. That tiny patch of brightness was the only evidence of his existence.

All right, all right, Starsky decided, if you want so badly to get away from me, you don't have to hide. I'll go.

Some memory was trying to connect with his awareness. It was such an offbeat one that at first he couldn't understand why he kept seeing a piece of paper he'd tucked away in a drawer long ago. He sometimes clipped outrageous cartoons to reside on his refrigerator door under a magnet, to be tossed away when their humor wore out. But that one cartoon had been too different than the ones his image could publicly live with, so he had never put it where other eyes could see it. Neither had he thrown it away.

It was a sequence of eight small drawings of a man, imprisoning himself in more and more protective coverings, and the captions read:



The exhaustion of the day had set in, the beer also taking its toll. Hutch had dozed off when he felt someone beside him and jumped.

"I thought you had left." Let alone leaving, Starsky hadn't even dressed.

"I was thinkin'."

The usual rejoinder don't strain yourself belonged to a dead past. "What about?" Hutch asked wearily.

Before answering, Starsky moved some pots away to find a spot to sink down on, and leaned back, careful not to upset any of the verdant residents. "As my grandmother used to say when I went out to play: `If you go too far from home, Luftmensh, remember, you have to come back the same distance!"

Hutch sighed. "You know, Starsk, I've never been able to appreciate your grandmother's `immortal' wisdom under the best of circumstances. I'm not up to riddles now."

"Yeah, well. Just answer one thing. Why'd you damn near have a heart attack runnin' after me tonight? I mean, if all you wanted was to be rid o' me?"

"God, Starsk! Why are you so dogged? Aren't you tired of this?"

"Yes, I am. Very. Tell me anyway."

"I don't know. Guess I had something to say. Seemed important at the time. Doesn't matter anymore."

"Matters to me. Say it."

"Jesus! I'm tired! Can't even think straight. You expect me to make sense?"

"Go rest. I'll wait."

It was said so levelly, so reasonably, that Hutch's temper snapped in reaction. "Goddamnit, David Starsky, what does it take to get rid of you?"

Midnight blue eyes regarded him mildly. "Guess we'll both find out, won't we?"

"If anything!" Hutch snapped.

"That, too." An unconcerned shrug accompanied the even voice.

Hutch had a tendency to lose control of his long limbs at times. Frustrated by the immovable object Starsky was calmly presenting, he spun around, only to collide clumsily with a bench housing numerous plants. It tipped, sending the pots crashing to the floor. The blond man stood transfixed on the destruction for a minute, feeling ready to cry, then stepped over it to go back inside, and threw himself on the couch. He squeezed his eyes tight and tuned out.

Some time later, he felt a tug on his sleeve. "Hutch. Hey, Hutch, open your eyes a minute?"

"Huh?" A cardboard box containing various leafy clippings was in front of his face.

"Which o' these let out roots in soil, and which need to go in water?"

Mechanically, he separated them. "Water," he said, pointing at one pile. The box was removed from his sight. Then he saw there was a wild array of clay pots, plastic containers, even a teapot and a saucepan on the coffee table, pressed into service to hold the plants rescued from their original dwellings. Dully, he noted that some were in wrong-sized containers, and there were a few that were too fragile to recover from the shock of uprooting.

He looked toward the kitchen where Starsky was diligently struggling to keep alive the babies severed from the mother plants. Chances were, he didn't know what he was doing, but being Starsky, he'd make a valiant effort anyway; giving up wasn't in his nature. Fixer-upper, Hutch thought, and was reminded of the godawful eyesore Starsky had once bought as `real estate investment.' He had probably bought the firetrap because it had looked too miserable for anyone else to ever bother with it.

Wonder what that says about me, he thought and went back to contemplating the tiny jungle in front of him.

Starsky was back, sitting next to him on the couch. "They're gonna be okay, Hutch. You'll talk to `em, baby `em, play `em some music or somethin', and they'll be okay."

The blond fished out a bowl holding a spindly plant, the leaves already curling on themselves dejectedly. "Not this one."

"Well, you write down its mile-long name and I'll get you another one."

Hutch put the plant down and turned to stare at the man attentively cleaning the soil from under his fingernails. "You think you should be able to fix everything for everyone, don't you?" he asked softly.

"Not everyone," was whispered back from the bowed head.

"For me, then?"

"I can try."


The shoulders rose in a shrug. "I don't like you hurtin'."

Impulsively, Hutch reached to ruffle the wayward curls. "I love you, too."

The eyes became visible from under thick, straight lashes. "But?"

"But what?" Hutch asked, confused.

"That's what you always say: `I love you, but...' But what this time?"

Hutch stayed silent for a minute, memory confirming Starsky's words. "But, nothing," he said, finally. "I love you. That's all."

"But you won't tell me whatever it was you were gonna tell me."

"Damn it, Starsk." It was no longer an outburst, just a sigh. "All right, I'll tell you, for all the good it'll do. Today, the bust went so perfectly. Not many of those lately. It took so long to set it up, what I had to do for it wasn't pleasant I was really at the end of my rope. When I first ran into that creepshow, I was ready to quit everything. It was simply a last hand I had to play out before I took off for good. I never thought beyond that. And when the dust settled today, all of a sudden it was old times again. For the first time in a very long while, I was proud of myself. I made a difference, you see. It was like finally realizing I'd been on the right path all along, while thinking I'd been lost for years. Suddenly I knew why I was what I was, remembered the reasons, and they made sense again. Not the way they did years ago, not through rose-colored glasses; I've changed too much for that. But the basics were there and they were still good basics." Despite the fatigue, he pulled himself straighter. "I stood for something, and damnit, I made it happen. I was in control. I counted today, Starsk."

Starsky snorted. "Hell, Hutch, I've known that all " He stifled himself.

"You've known that all along, is that it? I appreciate it, really I do, but some things I have to learn myself."

"I know. Just wish you'd find an easier way of doin' it, that's all. Hittin' your head against it over `n over must hurt, buddy."

"Sometimes. And sometimes more than others, but it's the way I am."

"Well..." Starsky shrugged, accepting. "And that's what you wanted to tell me."

"Er, I think so. I mean, who else have I got to tell it to? That and I guess I wanted to apologize. You've always been on the right path. I screwed up and took it out on you. I'm sorry."

"Tell me somethin', Hutch. How come you had no trouble sayin' the things that made me feel terrible, and when you have somethin' good to say, I gotta fight to drag it outta you?"

Hutch slumped again. "Well, consider that and maybe you'll understand why it's best if you left."

Starsky took him at his word. He fell silent and seriously, studiously, considered it. When he raised his head, he was wearing a crooked grin. "Close, but no cigar."


"I may not be too smart, College Boy, but my gut feelings don't steer me wrong." He laid a palm on his lower abdomen. "Somethin' here tells me you've made up your mind that I'd be better off without you, or some nonsense, and you're tryin' to prove it. What makes you think I'm gonna buy it?"

Hutch shook his head. "The question is, what makes you different? It should be inevitable. I stop living up to expectations, and people leave me it's automatic."

"Hey, sorry if I'm not living up to your expectations, buddy. And let me tell you, that comparison stinks!" Starsky paused to lower his voice. Getting angry had brought them nowhere. He was sick of the way they kept going around in circles. Hutch's mind may be comfortable doing it, but his preferred to function in simple lines. He was getting a headache. It was time to lay it straight on the line.

"You know I don't like suds, so I'm gonna say this just once. Pay attention. There are no returns here, Hutch. I ain't your father, your church, Van, or the force. You can't tell me to stuff the money, you're refusin' the salvation, takin' off your weddin' band, or throwin' away your badge. What's between us, you can return from here," he tapped Hutch's chest, "but you can't give it back, if you know what I mean. You can choose to ignore it, but as far as I'm concerned, it'll always be there. So stop kickin' against what you can't change and do just one thing."

Hutch wondered how Starsky sometimes managed to mesmerize him. "What?" he whispered. A hand firmly grasped his chin.

"Aim those baby-blues right here," Starsky indicated his own eyes, "and tell me, with no bullshit, exactly what you want the most."

Spellbinder, Hutch thought. "I want you to forgive me."

"You got it. Do you want me to leave?"

"No. Never did."

"See how simple it is? Now, ready to hear what I want?"


"I want you back, partner."

"You got it," Hutch echoed.

"There!" Starsky exclaimed triumphantly, letting go of Hutch's chin and gently slapping him on the cheek. "Not a three-syllable word in the whole bunch, and we got more accomplished in five seconds than Kissinger did in five years. Thank goodness I never went to college, or we'd be old and gray and still splittin' hairs."

Hutch felt drunk already, and decided: what the hell. "I want a beer," he announced, getting up, a little wobbly on his feet.

"Get me one, too."

A beer can sailed through the air. By that time, Hutch's aim was unsteady, Starsky's catch deplorable. Starsky's powers-of-reasoning seemed impaired, too. He popped the tab off the much-jostled can, and ended up wearing half its contents. Sheepishly, he wiped his face on the sleeve of Hutch's robe, then glared at the blond who seemed to find the situation hysterically funny.

"Hey, buddy," Hutch called out from where he was taking full advantage of the wall's steadying influence. "L'chayim."

Starsky echoed the toast, and added with an affectionate grin: "And to chavarim."

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Dobey struggled on the bed like a beached whale, trying to rid himself of bedclothes as he grabbed the insistent phone. "Dobey," he barked.

He thought he heard something that resembled, "`lo, Cap," accompanied by background noises. The Captain frowned. Was somebody giggling?

"Stop `at, clown," was mumbled into his ear, obviously not meant for him.

"Who is this? And it better be good!"

"`n a good evenin' to ya too, Cap'n," slurred through the wires.

"Starsky! Is that you? Do you know what time it is? What the "

"Or is it mornin'?" the voice puzzled. "Hey, Blondie, is it mornin'?" A mumble answered his query.

"STARSKY!" Dobey howled, making Edith, who had been sleeping peacefully through his normal decibels, jump. He patted her shoulder. "So help me, I'll " A loud crashing from the other end interrupted him. "What's going on there? Starsky, answer me! What's wrong?"

The sounds settled down to another set of giggles. "Nothin', Cap'n, nothin'. He was holdin' me up... `n the table was holdin' him up `n the table...quit." He dissolved into chuckles as another voice indignantly demanded:

"Get `r ass offa me!"

This time Dobey identified the second voice. "Is that Hutchinson with you?"

"Yeah, yeah, that's right," Starsky slurred, then a bright note crept into his voice. "That's right. Ain't it, Cap'n? I mean, that's just right, ain't it? Don't'cha think that's just right?"

Obviously, both men were drunk. One didn't argue with drunks, fools, and madmen the idiots qualified for all. "Yes, Starsky, that's right. That's just fine," Dobey said with infinite patience.

"Damned straight!" declared the voice, sounding almost sober.

"Starsky, what do you want?"

"Uh...? Hey, Blintz, what'd we want? Hey, Brain, ya `wake?" Some more sounds came through the phone, then Hutch's voice, none too steady itself, issued.

"Ya'll hafta `scuse Starsk, Cap'n, he's pickled." Starsky's mumble contributed something about kettles and pots. "He, lessee... he wanna... requir reque uh, requi-zee-shun... a new partner. I mean, an old partner. Know what I mean, Cap'n?"

Hallelujah, Dobey thought. Suddenly, he didn't mind his interrupted sleep so much. Providing it wasn't only the alcohol talking. And if it was, tomorrow he'd take both by the scruff of the neck and butt their heads together until their brains scrambled and unscrambled again.

"I'll take it under due consideration."

He realized Hutch was capable of understanding only the simplest sentences when a puzzled "Huh?" reached his ear.

"We'll talk about it tomorrow, son." He didn't mind the affectionate word slipping out. Chances were, neither man would remember the conversation. "Now get off this phone and let me get my sleep. You and your partner sound like you can use some yourselves." Nothing came across the wires, but the line stayed open. "Hutchinson, hang up the phone."

The next words weren't intended for him. "He said `partner,'" Hutch's voice announced, sounding like he had just solved a difficult puzzle. "Hey, ya hear me? He said `partner.'"

"Get `r elbow outta my ear," was Starsky's reaction to the momentous news.

"Hang up the blasted phone!" Something clattered. Dobey sighed. Hutch had merely let go of the receiver.

"Gonna sleep on the floor?" Starsky's voice asked distantly.

"Why not? Is it goin' somewhere?"

"Dunno." Dobey could visualize Starsky squinting at the floor, probably two inches off his nose. "`s movin', though..."

"Well...then I'm goin' with it. Ya comin'?"

"`m not on the floor," Starsky objected with dignity.

"I'm on the floor, dummy," Hutch reasoned, "and you're on me."

It took a while for Starsky to work through that complicated equation. "Guess `m goin', too."

"`s good." They both seemed to find that vastly amusing.

Dobey replaced the receiver.


If I'm dead, Hutch fuzzily decided, this is hell if I'm not, I wish I was. There were three layers of misery that seemed to pass for his body. He was cold on the outside, his muscles were stiff and aching from lying on the unyielding floor, and further was best not to describe what assaulted him there. He gathered enough courage to open his eyes, then persuaded himself that his head wouldn't topple off if he lifted it. When he had dislodged his stomach and replaced it, however haphazardly, where it belonged, he pushed up on his elbows, and found that it was the end of his mobility.

Starsky, ever the one to make the best of a bad situation, was sprawled over his midriff, his head not-too-uncomfortably cushioned on Hutch's abdomen. The blond man sank back with a groan, and immediately swore off sounds. He shook Starsky's shoulder to rouse him. Starsky's reaction was to roll over and try to burrow into Hutch's ribcage. He obviously didn't find that area as agreeable as the stomach, and rolled further, his head landing on the floor with a thud. A curse started and cut off abruptly as Starsky experienced the impact of sound in his brain.

For a long while, they stayed in their respective positions, islands of misery, coming to terms with The Morning After. Hutch contemplated the ceiling, and Starsky, eyes closed, contemplated his inner space. Eventually, they rolled enough so that one pair of bleary blue eyes was regarding another set of equally bleary ones.

"Awwwww," groaned Starsky.

"Hmmmnnnhhh," contributed Hutch.

"Hell," Starsky elaborated.

"Hell," Hutch agreed.

That established, they went back to their contemplation. Soon the cold, hard floor got to be too much. "`m gettin' up," Starsky announced, still prone.

Hutch decided to be the Good Example, but at one step at a time. He sat up. "`s okay, come on," he encouraged after a short bout with nausea. Some tugging by Hutch, and some honest labor by Starsky, and they were both sitting, leaning against each other like tired horses.

"Can't we just sleep it off, on somethin' soft?" Starsky pleaded.

"Gotta go to work," came the reminder.

Starsky groaned. "Won't do nobody no good," he argued. "Let's call in sick `n go to bed."

Hutch started to shake his head, then thought better of it. "Don't know about you, but I disappeared last night, and I was expected back. Dobey must be breathing fire."

"Come to think of it, the way I tore outta there wasn't too cool, either. Dobey will -_ " Simultaneously, the same suspicion hit both. "Dobey. Hutch, did we ?"

"I'm not sure, but I think _- " Together they turned toward the phone to see its receiver dangling on its wire.

"We did," Starsky concluded. "God, what time was it? What'd we say?"

"Dobey'll kill us," Hutch declared.

That was enough of an impetus to get up on. Change of position had unfortunate effects on the stomachs, though. Starsky pointed at the bathroom, and they stumbled there, supporting each other. But after a few minutes of expecting the worst, they managed to collect themselves unscathed. Hutch stuck his head under the faucet, while Starsky dropped the robe unceremoniously and stepped straight into the shower.

"I'll get the coffee started," Hutch offered.

"My clothes are in the dryer. Could you?"


Starsky had located a razor and was shaving when Hutch came in, handed him the clothes he'd been smoothing the wrinkles out of, and took his turn with the shower.

"Hey, Hutch."


"Next time you get into a snit, you're on your own. Makin' up with you's gonna kill me. Shit! If I don't cut my throat first." He concentrated on the job at hand until he could safely put the razor away. "I must've left a toothbrush here sometime."

"Probably. There's a new one in the medicine chest. Feel free."

"Thanks." For a while sounds of cleansing occupied the bathroom.

"Hey, Starsk."


"Did I ever tell you that I love your grandmother?"

"Forget it, boychickel, you're goy. A blond one at that, chas vesholem."


Showered and shaved, Hutch dressed, pulled out his white jacket from the closet and went to the kitchen. Starsky was huddled over a cup of coffee, looking troubled. Another steaming cup was waiting on the table.

Hutch sensed that something more than a hangover had started bothering his friend. "What's wrong?"

Starsky stayed silent for a while. "Meredith," he said finally.

"Oh." Somehow they had both forgotten about Starsky's present partner while trying to find their way back to each other through the night. Hutch suspected that Meredith was, once again, more than a partner. He knew he didn't want to spoil anything for Starsky, ever again. "Well, nothing to worry about."

"Hutch, she's gonna "

"No, she's not. I know what we talked about, but it's not necessary, Starsk. We don't have to be partners to be friends. Let's just "

"No," Starsky interrupted firmly. "It won't wash, Hutch. Not with Meredith. She'll know what I'd prefer; she's always known that. I'd much rather be straight with her. She won't stand for anythin' else." He could see that Hutch was set to argue further. "Trust me. I know her better."

"Special lady, huh?"

"Well, for starters, she's the best partner anybody could ask for." He didn't miss how Hutch's gaze shied away and added warmly, "I didn't ask for you. First day at the Academy, I turned around `n you were there. You just...sorta happened."

"Right. Like catching a disease."

Starsky started to laugh which turned into a groan. He cradled his forehead in his palm on the table. "Don't crack jokes this mornin' please. Oh, God, my head..."

When he raised his eyes, he realized Hutch had been serious. "Hey." He reached to cover his friend's hand. "I never said you were perfect. Just good enough for me. So it hasn't been a bed o' roses, probably won't be either, but it's worth it to me, okay?" He squeezed the hand when Hutch didn't respond. "Okay?"

"Okay." Please, God, don't ever let me make him regret it. "Didn't you once say this lady wiped you out in hand-to-hand?"

"I was at a disadvantage. Hundred-ten pounds if she's soakin' wet, so I wasn't takin' her seriously. Bad mistake. Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back."

"That fast, huh? Sure you didn't think you were playing another kind of game, the one in which it wouldn't take much to get you horizontal?"

Starsky grimaced. "If I did, she changed my mind quick what with her gun pokin' into my side."

"Wait a minute," Hutch kidded. "She sounds dangerous. Do I want to be with you when we see her today?"

"Yeah," Starsky decided for him, seriously. "You wanna be with me."

Hutch sobered, too. "You're right, partner. I do."

"First, though," the light tone was back in Starsky's voice, "let's go find Huggy and make him fix us one of his sure-fire cures for hangovers. Then we'll talk to Meredith. Afterwards we'll have to see...."

"We can always go get my car afterwards," Hutch offered. Anything to delay the inevitable with Dobey, who should be fed up with the antics of his two cops. "Still, Dobey's going to get us sooner or later."

"Well, maybe if we duck long enough and catch him when he's real busy.... Come on, let's go. Believe it or not, I'm startin' to get hungry."

Hutch shuddered violently at the idea of food.


Meredith didn't like paperwork, but unlike Starsky, she didn't delude herself into thinking it'd go away if ignored long enough. Since she couldn't locate her partner, the morning had been as good a time as any to catch up. Not that anybody was clamoring for reports, for a change. The whole precinct seemed to be caught up in the avalanche of busts Detective Hutchinson had unexpectedly dropped into Metro's lap the day before. She had found a back office, away from the thick of things, and the work was keeping her from worrying. Starsky hadn't been home all night and all morning.

She was about done and ready to do some serious worrying when the door cracked open and Starsky's curly mop presented itself, framing apologetic eyes and a scape-grace grin.

"Where have you been? I called and _- " The rest of the body filled the partially open doorway. He was wearing the clothes he had on the previous day, now wrinkled. "Never mind. Maybe I don't want to know. Just get to your paperwork."

She wasn't sure she cared to speculate about the combination of his absence all night long, the clothes, and the face that spoke of little sleep, topped with apologetic eyes. "I did most of it for you, but you have to fill in the blanks. For example, what happened after you ditched your partner and went up on that crane like some damned fool with a suicide wish?"

"I'm sorry," he said with that guileless sincerity he was capable of, and motioned at the paperwork. "Thanks."

She bent to sign the papers. After a moment, she realized he was still standing riveted in the doorway. She looked up and caught him casting an anxious glance to his left, to something or someone hidden by the door. Impatiently, she went to the door and pulled it open all the way.

Hutchinson stood there, hands thrust into pockets, shoulders hunched. Another set of blue eyes flashed apology at her before they went back to watching the aimless patterns a boot toe was tracing on the tiles. Starsky had his head tilted to one side, transmitting some kind of plea. Neither had anything to say, seemingly sure that the picture they were presenting was worth a thousand words.

Obviously, her suspicion of how he had spent the night had been way off base. The tiny stirring of betrayal she had started to feel, instead of easing, blazed almost out of control. She could forgive her lover for a one-night stand, even understand it, during a rocky period. But how dare he stand there, with his all-too-readable silence, and present her with the fait-accompli of: it's been fun, but you see, The Real Thing is back now? He was hacking at a commitment more serious than their personal one.

Under her gaze, Starsky shifted from one foot to the other, still silent, anxious eyes gauging her reaction. Suddenly, it dawned on Meredith that he looked more like a supplicant than anything else. It triggered an old memory.

After their father had disappeared to wherever too many black men who had been beaten by the odds found refuge, and their mother had been forced to work at a string of jobs with long hours, Meredith had been responsible for taking care of home, a young brother, and an old grandmother. Home, then, had been Trenton, New Jersey, a town fast surrendering to decay, especially on the wrong side of the tracks. J.J. had been a delicate, quiet child. Meredith now saw him standing in front of her again, all awkward limbs and shy eyes too large for his face, pleading to keep the ugly mongrel he had found somewhere.

She hadn't had the heart to refuse. He had promptly named the wet, muddied, starved creature "Champion," and had been attached to him with all the fierce love and loyalty small, lonely boys were capable of. They had been inseparable from that moment on until the miserable beast had broken J.J.'s heart by getting run over a few years later.

J.J. had gone to Vietnam, barely nineteen. He had come back in a green plastic body bag.

"Did anyone ever tell you," she said, as casually as she could manage, "that you both look sort of unfinished without each other? You're a lot easier on the eyes like this. Detective Hutchinson." She found a smile from somewhere, and extended her hand. He enveloped it with both his oversized ones, held it for a second, then raised it to his lips.

Champion had licked her face when she had leaned to inspect the monstrosity she had just allowed J.J. to keep.

Oh, dear God, she thought, I have to learn to like this hulking, sulking blond. Damn it, Dave, do you have to come in a package deal? She studied the tall man smiling hesitantly at her. Well, some relationships had to be challenging.

She glanced back at Starsky, who was watching both of them as if they were the most beautiful sight in his universe. She'd start with the assumption that since Starsky loved this man, he had to be worth it somehow, and see where that would lead.

Really, one day she had to tell Starsky about J.J.

"Did I mention it earlier, Dave?" she continued after retrieving her hand. "Now that we don't have any loose ends, I'm going to take my two weeks and fly East to visit my mother." In fact, she could do it immediately. She had been due leave for months and had been putting it off. She could drop off the reports, and be out of Metro in ten minutes, on a flight in a couple of hours. We can all use some time to settle down.

Starsky was looking worried again. "Meredith, I _- "

"Did you already tell Dobey?" she interrupted, a hand motion taking in both men. She knew what was worrying Starsky, but something petty, she admitted inside her wanted him to sweat about it for a while.

"I...I think I did. We did."

"He's going to kill us," Hutch mumbled.

"Oh, I think not. Why don't you two go find out." She started gathering up the reports. Starsky's hand, a little hesitant on her waist, turned her around.


She couldn't keep up the act. He was a fully grown man, powerful, predatory at times, and gentle at other times with an inbred sensitivity. He had the passions and foibles of an adult male. But, for some reason, she had always been very aware of the child in him, sometimes an irrepressible mischievous imp, sometimes a lost little boy seeking assurance, wanting, needing

She threw her arms around his neck and gave him one of her genuine smiles. "Will you take care of my fish for me?" He nodded, eyes a little hopeful. "How about spaghetti with clam sauce when I get back? This time we'll see if we can manage to eat it together."

Relief broke out all over his face and he hugged her. "It's a date. I'll have it ready."

Over his shoulder, she looked speculatively at Hutchinson. This time around, he wasn't hovering over them obnoxiously, making pointed remarks. In fact, he had distanced himself, pretending not to be there by gazing out the window.

No time like the present to tackle the inevitable, she decided. "Officer Hutchinson, would you like to join us for spaghetti?"

He looked around, a little surprised. "Ken, please," he said. "I'd like that very much, but not the first day you get back. Later sometime?"

Maybe this wasn't going to be so hard. "Sure...Ken."

"Thank you," came the heartfelt whisper from Starsky's lips buried in her hair. He took a step back. "Lady, you're somethin' else." He turned to Hutch. "Guess we can't put off seein' Dobey too much longer."

"He's going to kill us," Hutch repeated as a foregone conclusion.

She watched them walk away. Damn it, they did look right together. You blow it this time, Hutchinson, she thought, and you'll answer to me.

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"Do you think," Starsky asked conversationally, when they were on the staircase, "that the world is ready for a coupla little black Jewish Starskys?"

Hutch tripped over his feet and collected himself. "That serious, huh?"

"Don't go rentin' the tux yet. I'm none too sure myself. I mean, this is a serious business. Gotta think before you jump. And Meredith, well, she's classy. Guess I ain't exactly what she's always dreamed of, but.... Anyway, it was just a rheterical question. For now."

"Rhetorical," Hutch corrected automatically. "Don't worry about the world, partner. Some of the bigoted bastards in it are already behind bars, right? Anymore crop up, it'll be their problem. If you want to add little black Jewish Starskys to the population, go right ahead. I'll sure be ready for them whenever you are."

Starsky didn't much care what the world at large thought. In a roundabout way, he had been after Hutch's reaction, which mattered a lot, but hadn't expected the bonus his partner's answer had let slip out. It made him stop dead in his tracks.

Ever since the previous night, when Hutch had detailed his latest crusade, Starsky had been wondering what he was leaving unsaid so carefully, and why. Suddenly, instinctively, he realized what had made Hutch turn on one of his boyhood friends so viciously and single-mindedly. Miller had made one hell of a dangerous mistake. Instead of trying to convert Hutch, he should've been doing his damnedest to keep his anti-Semitist self from the blond. Probably, he still didn't know what he had violated to earn Hutch's wrath. Watch it, world, you're treading on me and thee. Oh, partner...

"Considering which genes are dominant, guess you'll be taking a chance on blue eyes," Hutch was chattering away, plainly unaware of Starsky's thoughts or that he was bounding down the steps alone. "But it's safe to say we're stuck with the curls. Hope Meredith can instill some taste in them. I'm not putting tacos in Halloween baskets. Hey, does Meredith have an ear for
music? Maybe I can still teach a Starsky to sing properly. Stranger things have happened. And the first time you buy a candy-red tricycle with a racing stripe, you can forget about...." He and his voice disappeared down the staircase.

Damn, Hutch. I'm sorry. All those things I said in anger. I didn't know. I thought you didn't give a damn. Come to find out I'm sorry, babe. God, what if I'd just kept runnin'?

The blond head reappeared around the railing, eyes looking up at his motionless partner in puzzlement. "Starsk?" Hutch retraced his steps to Starsky's side. "Something wrong?"

Wrong? Hell, no. It's finally right again. "Uh... no, no," Starsky said, deciding to honor Hutch's silence. You wanna keep it inside your own chest for a while, babe, go ahead. Now there's all the time in the world. "So you like the notion of little Starskys, huh?"

"Sure. Who else have I got to wait for to tell stories to? Like how their father ended up with a nickname like Dirtball, or how he once burst into a hostage situation damn near naked. Or what one of LA's finest has in common with a Virgin in the Woods, or how he let himself be suckered into buying a rat for two hundred and fifty dollars, or "

Starsky aimed a kick at him, which he knew Hutch was fully expecting. The blond man grabbed the leg and pulled, abruptly introducing Starsky's posterior to the steps.

"Ouch!" Starsky swung his other leg into the back of Hutch's knees, and ended up the loser again when the blond managed to land on top of him. He didn't care at the moment. Painful backside or not, he got his arms around Hutch to hug him briefly, hard. Hutch didn't know why, of course, but he seemed perfectly willing to return the embrace before they started trying to figure out which appendage belonged to whom.

Starsky realized what a sight they were presenting in the middle of the precinct. "If we don't quit this, IA's gonna get mighty interested," he pointed out.

Hutch verbalized what they could do to IA with two short, choice words, causing Starsky to exclaim: "All of `em!?" Laughing like kids, they sorted out their individual bodies and got to their feet.

A throat was pointedly cleared. Looking up, they saw Minnie leaning over the rails. "Do we know her?" Starsky asked.


"On what?"

"Whether or not she's talking to us."

"You just hold it right there, you hooligans, and let me look at you," she said.

"Oh, it's Minnie," Starsky concluded.

"The old Minnie at that," Hutch added.

"Hello, Minnie," they chorused.

"Hello, yourselves. Wanna tell old Minnie what's going on? It's been a while since these eyes have seen you like this."

"Not much," Starsky answered. "It just took our smart College Boy all this time to figure out he can't hack it out there without my brains."

Hutch objected. "Hey, everybody knows I'm the brains of this team."

"Both of which don't amount to a hill o' beans," Minnie said. "Well, gotta run. Oh, Curly, there're some homemade cookies on my desk if you want to stop by."

"Jeez, I haven't had that offer for months," Starsky said farther down the corridor. "What have you got to do with whether or not I rate Minnie's homemade cookies?"

"Guess I add to your charm."

Starsky had stopped in front of the glass door to the squadroom, now in a state of disarray. "Hey, how about it?"

Hutch leaned back, and saw the recreation equipment that had, for some reason, been carried into the middle of the squadroom. "Now?"

"Why not?"

"Come on, Starsk. People are working in there."

"They'll be goin' on lunch break. Come on."

"Starsky, do you know how much paperwork I have from yesterday? Got to see Dobey sometime, and we still have to get my car."

"Aw, Hutch, once you get caught in papers we'll never have the time. As for your car, hopefully it's stolen by now. And are you so eager to see Dobey?" He was feeling like a kid on Christmas morning after finding out Santa has been too good to him. Serious work had no appeal when all he wanted to do was to romp around.

Hutch yielded to the look in his eyes. "All right, but you have to make it worth my while."

"I'll think o' somethin'. Come on."

Starsky looked at the state of upheaval in the room as they got ready. "The whole place is goin' from the sublime to the ridiculous. That's a quote," he explained at Hutch's look, "from a "

"I'm well versed in trivia, Starsk."

"What you know about trivia would qualify as the triviest of trivia."

Hutch wrinkled his nose at the liberties Starsky was taking with the language. "Oh, yeah? Why don't you put your mouth where your mouth is, Hotshot?"

"Are you challengin' me?"

"You got it."

"Oh, boy, this is gonna be good," Starsky announced to the room. "Pick your category."

"Let's see. How can I make this easier on a devoted urbanite from Lower Manhattan?" He pretended to search, then snapped his fingers. "Western."

"Piece o' cake. I cut my teeth on Westerns."

"Country Western, as in songs, dummy." Starsky groaned. "Want to forfeit?"

"Not on your life! Go."


News of the long-unseen sight of The Terrible Two frolicking around the precinct had caught up with the Captain in the cafeteria. He tracked them down, fully intending to ground their feet firmly to earth, but the sight of them together was playing havoc with the stern expression he had plastered on his face. Actually, there was no pressing business, except some mopping up from the day before, and he decided to be generous.

Dobey started to say something, was sidetracked by the competition in full swing, then tried to remember. "Uh...where was I?"

"You were wondering, Captain," Hutch reminded him.

"I was wondering..." Dobey tried to recapture the authoritarian pose. "I was wondering what's going on here?" he asked sternly.

Under the guise of answering him, both men performed an orchestrated disappearing shuffle, as fast as any he had seen. After a while, the Captain realized he had been standing there, grinning like an idiot for minutes. It was time to go and have something which had been too scarce lately: a Good Day at the Office.

A commotion shattered his contentment. It sounded like a hot-rod gang was starting a demolition derby in the police garage. There were sounds of metal scraping, tires screeching, cars backfiring, and then people running and shouting.

He scowled and headed out. He'd put a stop to whatever was going on soon enough. His prodigal sons had found their way home, and he wasn't going to let anything spoil this day.